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April 29, 2010

Book Notes - Sean Manning ("Top of the Order: 25 Writers Pick Their Favorite Baseball Player of All Time")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

I have been a baseball fan all my life, and am increasingly fascinated with the game's mythology as much as its outcomes as I grow older. Baseball fans build their own personal relationship with the game and its players, and these relationships are portrayed exceptionally well in Top of the Order: 25 Writers Pick Their Favorite Baseball Player of All Time. Sean Manning has brought together a stellar group of writers, journalists, musicians, and entertainers, and each shares a story of a ballplayer who has touched their life.

Library Journal wrote of the collection:

"Leading off this impressive lineup of fiction and nonfiction writers, journalists, musicians, etc., is W.P. Kinsella with a vivid foreword reminding baseball fans why they love the sport. Then the all-star contributors (e.g., Roger Kahn, Buzz Bissinger, Laura Lippman) present their favorite ball player. These are not the best players, hence we get to read of Steve Dembowski, who parlayed an ability to be hit by pitched balls into a remarkable fan base; of Garry Maddox for his many off-field accomplishments, notably his mentoring of young players. But wondrous talent is not ignored, notably the fabled Lou Gehrig. On many occasions, the writer's explanation for his or her choice tells us much about the writer's own youth and subsequent career choices—thus the ultimate charm of this collection is how it tells us something about ourselves as well as our heroes."

In his own words, here is Sean Manning's Book Notes music playlist for his book, Top of the Order: 25 Writers Pick Their Favorite Baseball Player of All Time:

Top of the Order: 25 Writers Pick Their Favorite Baseball Player of All Time is my third anthology—and I'm currently working on a fourth. One reason I enjoy doing them is that it's a lot like being both the general manager and manager of a ball club—searching out and recruiting contributors the way a GM scouts and signs players, configuring the essays the way a skipper does a line-up or pitching rotation. For my playlist, I figured I'd act the part of stadium music director, that person in charge of playing the songs when hitters approach the plate or a reliever trots in from the bullpen. Imagine hearing these as you turn the page to their respective essays.

1. "Brooks Robinson (Grandpa's Dream #5)" by the Drovers Old Time Medicine Show

For her favorite player, What the Dead Know author and eminent Baltimorean Laura Lippman picked Orioles Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson, in large part because of his amiableness. "How nice is Brooks Robinson?" Lippman writes. "Brooks is so nice that he lent a rabid fan his uniform for Halloween 1975…Brooks is so nice that he wooed his wife, a flight attendant on the team plane, by ordering endless glasses of iced tea." As she notes, even this bluegrass ode to him is good-natured: "Some say Brooks is second to Mike Schmidt/To an Orioles fan, Mike Schmidt ain't/BROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOKS ROBINSON"

2. "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" by the Hold Steady

Like his band's rendition of the seventh-inning standard, Hold Steady lead singer and guitarist Craig Finn's essay on Kirby Puckett is bittersweet. During his twelve-year Hall of Fame career, Puckett helped the Minnesota Twins win two World Series and—thanks to a smile that, as Finn describes it, "told you he felt pure joy to be standing on first base, to be playing baseball in the big leagues"—became one of the most beloved players the game had ever seen. A year after his enshrinement in Cooperstown, he was charged with criminal sexual misconduct and assault. Not four years later he was dead of a stroke at age forty-five. "In the end," Finn writes, "we found that he wasn't just a home run hitter. He wasn't a just home run-robbing fielder. He wasn't a teddy bear. He was a human with problems of his own."

3. "Big In Japan" by Tom Waits

2987 strikeouts (401 of which came in a single season). A one-time record 193 saves. An eleven-inning no-hitter won by his own sayonara home run. Yutaka Enatsu is arguably the best pitcher to have ever played in Japan. However, according to You Gotta Have Wa author Robert Whiting, Enatsu's performance was all the more impressive in light of his off-field behavior: "In May 1971, after a series of sluggish performances, he was examined by a team physician and diagnosed with a heart condition. The doctor prescribed cortisone and other medicine and told Enatsu that he would have to give up at least one of his four favorite activities: drinking, smoking, women and mahjong. Enatsu thought long and hard and replied, ‘I can't think of life without my postgame cigarette. I'm too addicted to women and mahjong to give them up. So I guess it will have to be drinking.' Two alcohol-free months later, he started a midseason all-star game and struck out the first nine men to face him. He also hit a home run." With retirement, Enatsu's appetites only increased. In the mid-nineties he was imprisoned nearly three years for drug possession.

4. "Afro Puffs" by Lady of Rage

"I never really understood the power of the 'fro until I challenged myself to let my hair grow in a futile attempt to catch him," writes former major leaguer and current New York Times "Heading Home" columnist Doug Glanville of Garry Maddox, who while winning numerous Gold Gloves and a World Series with the Philadelphia Phillies sported one of baseball's dopest ever dos. Maddox became Glanville's mentor during the latter's own tenure in Philadelphia, dispensing advice on not only patrolling Veterans Stadium's vast outfield but on relationships and life after baseball as well. The two remain close friends, and in fact Maddox is responsible for Glanville abandoning a real estate career to pursue writing.

5. "Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?" by Count Basie

Until reading The Boys of Summer author Roger Kahn's essay on Jackie Robinson, I'd never heard of Our Sports, the short-lived sports magazine Robinson created for African-American readers. It made me realize how underappreciated the color barrier-breaking Brooklyn Dodger second baseman still remains.

6. "Romeo and Juliet" by Dire Straits

"It was like the line from the Dire Straits song ‘Romeo and Juliet,'" Word Freak author Stefan Fatsis writes of outgrowing his boyhood idolization of New York Yankees outfielder Bobby Murcer. "Oh, Bobby? Yeah, you know, I used to have a scene with him." Fatsis's account of Murcer's heroics in that famous game between New York and Baltimore just hours after Yanks catcher Thurmon Munson's funeral is absolutely heartrending.

7. "Ordinary Average Guy" by Joe Walsh

Of course, there was nothing ordinary or average about Greg Maddux's pitching, especially in 1995, when en route to a fourth consecutive Cy Young Award his ERA was a infinitesimal 1.63. Yet as Alternadad author Neal Pollack writes, "In an era where his contemporaries were bulking up like Popeye in the chase for glory and five-year, $47 million contracts, Maddux sat in the dugout, glasses on, and studied. He was the pitcher as permanent graduate student, always taking notes, making observations, and thinking. For the bookish division of the baseball fan base, he made a perfect role model…[H]e seemed like one of us."

8. "Meet the Mets" as played by Jane Jarvis

This for the three Mets featured in the book—Tom Seaver (the choice of A False Spring author Pat Jordan), Dave Kingman (Trance author Christopher Sorrentino), and Mookie Wilson (actor, author and comedian Michael Ian Black)—in honor of longtime Shea Stadium organist Jarvis, who passed away in January at age ninety-four. (One-time Amazin' Jeff Kent is also an essay subject, the favorite of Wrecking Crew author John Albert. However, as Albert recounts, Kent never felt all that welcome in Flushing: "When he arrived in New York, his Met teammates pulled a traditional prank on the newcomer, breaking into his locker and swapping his street clothes for some decidedly less redneck attire. Unwilling to appear fashion-forward for even a night, genetically humorless Kent erupted in anger. As a result, the entire team refused to speak to him for the rest of the year.")

9. "Shut 'Em Down" by Public Enemy

Chang and Eng author Darin Strauss selected Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, which provides me the opportunity to openly petition Yankee Stadium's music director to play "Shut ‘Em Down" instead of Metallica's "Enter Sandman" when Rivera enters the game. For one thing, Rivera never picked "Enter Sandman." He doesn't even like it. "I don't listen to that kind of music," he told the Times in 2006. For another thing, PE is from Long Island. Metallica? L.A.! And finally, most importantly, the refrain to "Shut ‘Em Down" is way easier to enunciate after three or four beers than "Exit light/Enter night." Seriously, though, 50,000-plus screaming in unison at the top of their lungs, "Shut 'Em, Down! Shut 'Em, Shut 'Em Down!" How much more terrifying would that be to the opposition? I find it incredible no reliever has ever thought to take this as his theme.

10. "Someone Great" by LCD Soundsystem

My favorite player? Michael Jordan. I always attributed his baseball lark to boundless ego, and thought the scathing criticism it drew—particularly from Sports Illustrated, which devoted a cover story to ridiculing him—well justified. But then a couple years ago my mother passed away, and I realized how wrong I'd been. Jordan's decision had simply been a way of dealing with the death of his father; that he'd been paid so little respect and sympathy was despicable. There was something beautiful and courageous in the expression of his grief, and in a way it's helped me cope with my own loss. So has "Someone Great": "The worst is all the lovely weather/I'm sad it's not raining/The coffee isn't even bitter/Because what's the difference?"

Sean Manning and Top of the Order: 25 Writers Pick Their Favorite Baseball Player of All Time links:

BookPage review
Bookviews by Alan Caruba review
Boston Globe review
Corduroy Books review
Curled Up with a Good Book review
Deseret News review
Farther Off the Wall review
Library Journal review
Louisville Courier-Journal review
New York Post review
Ron Kaplan's Baseball Bookshelf review
Sacramento Book Review review
Tucson Citizen review

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly highlights of comics & graphic novels)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly highlights of new books)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from this week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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